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What is Suboccipital Neuralgia?

By Jennifer Long
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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Neuralgia is the term used to describe the pain that a person experiences as a result of nerve damage. Suboccipital neuralgia, also called occipital neuralgia, is one of the types of neuralgia. It is characterized by a cycle of pain, then muscle spasms in the neck, and then pain that radiates around the regions of the head and sometimes occurs behind the eyes.

The suboccipital nerve is actually a set of two nerves, and neither one actually comes into contact with any part of the skull, but they are part of a neural network. Generally, it is one of the other nerves closest to one of the suboccipital nerves that has suffered damage and is one of the common causes of suboccipital neuralgia. The suboccipital nerves affect the area along the base of the skull and a little of the area behind the ears. Occipital headaches will often start at the back of the head and radiate around the side to the front.

Symptoms of suboccipital neuralgia are commonly mistaken for other problems, such as cluster headaches. To distinguish between suboccipital neuralgia and other problems, doctors must know specific details about what other things are noticed during the headaches. The headaches should cause pain in the same areas each time and start in the same part at the base of the skull. The scalp most likely will be extremely sensitive, and hair brushing could be painful. Some sufferers will have pain behind the eyes, but not all sufferers do.

Treating suboccipital neuralgia can take some time as doctors work to find an exact cause — if one exists — for the pain and find techniques that are effective against the pain. Some patients find that heat and massage therapy work well. Others who suffer from suboccipital neuralgia have more severe pain and find relief only from prescription medications and nerve blocks.

Suboccipital neuralgia is not a life-threatening condition, but it can be life-altering. The pain and muscle spasms can be extreme. Suffering regularly can affect daily activities and cause sufferers to restrict how they do things and what they choose to do.

Muscle relaxers, anti-inflammatory medications, and pain relievers are effective treatments. It is up to the doctors to determine which treatments are most beneficial and whether the damage is extensive enough for surgery. People who suffer from these symptoms and have received proper diagnosis should discuss all options thoroughly with their doctors.

The Health Board is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Discussion Comments
By anon313997 — On Jan 15, 2013

I get almost immediate relief from my chiropractor, who also does acupuncture.

By julies — On Mar 31, 2012

I have pain in my face that is diagnosed as trigeminal neuralgia. When I get these attacks, this is the worst pain I have ever experienced.

Any kind of nerve pain can be difficult to treat, and there aren't very many effective trigeminal neuralgia treatment options for this condition.

I never know what is going to set this off. The pain may last for a few minutes up to a few days. Sometimes if I chew too hard I will get intense pain in my face.

Other things that are more subtle like a loud crash, or strong wind on my face can set it off. I get some relief from medications but they don't have any kind of cure for this.

Surgery is an option for some people, but the results are not always effective. I have never tried acupuncture, but since nothing else has been very effective, I would be open to giving it a try.

By bagley79 — On Mar 30, 2012

@myharley - Have you ever tried acupuncture? This has worked well for me for my occipital neuritis.

I developed this after I had whiplash when I was in a car accident. I went for a long time fighting this pain and not finding anything that would really help.

I had neck pain and bad headaches that I never had before being in this accident. Before this I never understood how debilitating a headache could be. I just thought you could take an aspirin and keep going.

When you have nerve pain involved, it is a lot more complicated than that. I know it can be frustrating to find relief, but I have been happy with the results I have with acupuncture.

The only bad thing is most insurance companies won't cover the cost. I have found the relief I get is more important, so I get a treatment whenever I need one.

By myharley — On Mar 30, 2012

When I have symptoms of occipital neuralgia, I have pain all around my head, behind my eyes, and often get jaw pain with it as well.

I keep telling my husband I would feel fine if I could just replace my head. Some days I get good relief when I apply a heating pad to my head, and rest for awhile.

I also try to give myself a head and temple massage, but this is always more effective if you can find someone else to give you one. My husband has become very good at massaging my head and neck.

This helps me relax and I can feel the tension and spasms start to subside. I have a friend who suffers with this worse than I do. When his pain gets really bad, he has to go to the clinic and receive a shot.

This shot knocks him out for awhile, but when he wakes up the pain is gone and stays gone for awhile. I haven't tried this yet, but there are some days this doesn't sound like a bad solution.

By SarahSon — On Mar 29, 2012

I have suffered with occipital neuralgia symptoms for many years. Even though these headaches are not life-threatening, they certainly put a damper on many of my days.

I really get frustrated when a really bad headache ruins a perfectly beautiful day. For years I tried to treat these with over-the-counter pain medications, but after awhile they quit working for me all the time.

I now take a prescription medication that helps if the headaches get really bad. I really don't like relying on medication like this to treat these headaches, but haven't found anything else that works.

The last thing I want to do is spend my life in bed trying to get rid of a headache and neuralgia pain. If I can take a medication and get on with my day, that seems to be the best solution for me.

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